Tag Archives: EverQuest

Rethinking MMO Death Penalties

back in my day leveling

Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.

Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.

The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.

Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties

Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.

If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.

This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.


MMOs with the Best Class Options

Sometimes I hear people in the MMO community ask questions like, “How many classes is too many in an MMO?” And every time I hear it, it baffles me. How can there be too many options on how to play?

No, the more the merrier, I say. I crave games that offer many and varied class choices. The more and the weirder the better. There are few things quite so exciting as encountering an MMO class that’s not like anything you’ve played before.

Much as we recently saluted the MMORPGs with the most interesting racial choices, let’s now take a look at the games which gift us the most compelling class choices.

World of Warcraft

A demon hunter character in World of Warcraft

WoW’s most unique class is probably the recently added demon hunter, which combines agile melee combat with chaotic demon magic. Oh, and they can turn into demons themselves.

But the rest of the roster is pretty diverse, as well. There might not be a lot of wildly original options, but it’s a healthier selection than many games offer these days, with almost every playstyle you can imagine included somehow or another.

WoW is helped by the fact it’s always had very strong class design, with each option having a very distinct playstyle due to unique resource mechanics and other class-specific quirks. WoW’s system of specializations also adds a lot of variety within classes. A priest, for example, can be a standard healer… or a maddened cultist wielding twisted shadow magic to vanquish their foes.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

A lot of Guild Wars 2’s classes conform pretty closely to the standard fantasy archetypes, but they do deserve credit for having a few options that are bit more off the beaten path. The engineer, for instance, is a fairly uncommon archetype and a very refreshing change of pace.

More interesting still are the mesmer and the revenant. The former is an illusionist class that warps reality and the minds of their foes alike with a flurry of phantasms, tricks, and arcane magic. If you’ve never played it, you should at least try it, as there’s nothing else quite like it.

The revenant, meanwhile, bears some resemblance to “dark knight” style classes, but with a twist. Rather than more conventional death magic, the revenant channels the identities and powers of famous historical figures from Guild Wars lore, making for a truly unique class.

Rift

A tempest character in Rift

Rift has a fairly unusual take on character builds. The actual number of classes, or “callings” as the game dubs them, is quite small — just five, even with the addition of the primalist post-launch — but each calling includes many “souls” which are almost complete classes unto themselves. These souls provide incredible variety, and the ability to mix and match them grants more freedom still.

Each calling has at least a few interesting souls, but for my money the most unique are found under the rogue calling. These include the ephemeral riftstalker, which warps between realities to tank damage, the saboteur, who wields explosives to devastating effect, and the tactician, which uses advanced magitech weaponry to support allies.

MapleStory

A promotional image for the import MMORPG MapleStory

With more than thirty classes, MapleStory offers a dizzying variety of choices ranging from the standard to the outright bizarre. Want to dual wield magic blowguns and ride a unicorn? MapleStory has a class for you!

Or maybe you’d rather have an arm-mounted soul cannon, or pilot a mech, or be a jaguar-riding archer… MapleStory’s class selection lacks for nothing, least of all originality. When the rest of the world asks why, MapleStory asks, “Why not?”

The EverQuests

A promotional image for EverQuest II

Both EverQuest games jointly took the top prize in our list of MMOs with the most interesting races, and they also rank very highly when it comes to class selection.

The original EverQuest boasts an impressive sixteen classes covering almost any archetype you could want. Its sequel, though, goes even further, with a whopping twenty-five classes.

Within that list you’ll find common concepts like paladins and rangers, but there are also plenty of more exotic choices. EQ2 offers not one but two bard classes, including a darker take on the archetype called a dirge. Consider also the coercer, a caster class focused on mental domination of its enemies. And while I am not the biggest EverQuest fan myself, I will always admire EQ2 for offering a true swashbuckler class.

I do love a little swash in my buckle.

Between the wealth of class choices and the staggering racial variety, the EverQuest games offer some of the most creative options and most diverse potential for role-play in the MMORPG field.

Tree of Savior

The City of Orsha in Tree of Savior

Tree of Savior is a game that has made its wealth of classes a major selling point, with over eighty to choose from. Players begin by choosing one of four basic classes — swordsman, wizard, archer, or cleric — and then at regular intervals over the leveling process have the choice to upgrade to more advanced classes or continue developing their current one.

With over eighty to choose from, pretty much every archetype you can imagine is represented, plus several you probably can’t. Looking over the list, my eye was caught by the “schwarzer reiter,” a pistol wielding class that rides what appears to be a beaver-lizard-chicken.

I don’t think any game is likely to top that level of variety any time soon.


MMOs with the Best Race Options

With World of Warcraft releasing early access to some of its new allied races, the concept of playable races in MMORPGs has been on my mind as of late. All too often these days, MMOs don’t offer a choice of races, or the choices are severely underwhelming, with little to differentiate the various options beyond height or maybe skin tone.

But there are still a few games out there putting a bit more creativity into their racial options. This seems an opportune moment to salute those MMOs with the best races that let us play as creatures beautiful, bizarre, or both.

Elder Scrolls Online

A Khajiit character in Elder Scrolls Online

With ten playable races (one of which is exclusive to the deluxe edition), Elder Scrolls Online seems like the sort of game that might rank very highly on this list, but it does lose some points for how similar many of those races are.

Four out of the ten are simply different nationalities of human, and not truly separate races. Another three are various varieties of Elf, and while they are physically and culturally distinct, it’s still not the greatest example of variety out there.

ESO does deserve some respect for its remaining races, though. Orcs are still fairly standard, but the catlike Khajiit and reptilian Argonians are much more unusual and provide welcome respite from more standard fantasy archetypes. Furthermore, unlike many non-human races in gaming, the Khajiit and Argonians have been given quite robust customization options and gear that usually fits of them without clipping or graphical bugs.

Allods Online

An Elf character in Allods Online

Allods Online brings a fairly standard compliment of racial options — Elves, humans, Orcs — supplemented by several more interesting options. There’s the unliving Arisen, the bestial Priden, and the otherworldly Aeds.

But no discussion of races in Allods can be complete without mentioning the infamous Gibberlings. A small, rodent-like race, the most bizarre feature of the Gibberling is that each Gibberling avatar is actually three characters that the player controls simultaneously. It doesn’t actually affect how you play that much, but it’s still a wonderfully bizarre concept.

Star Trek Online

An Andorian captain in Star Trek Online

The Star Trek universe has always had a colorful variety of alien races, and this is reflected in its MMO incarnation, as Star Trek Online features a great variety of well known and more obscure species from the Trek shows and movies. It’s also the only game that isn’t a fantasy MMO on this list.

More impressively, players also have the option to create their own species by mixing and matching a variety of physical features and racial abilities. That’s a level of freedom very few games offer.

Guild Wars 2

A Charr engineer in Guild Wars 2

At a mere five playable races, Guild Wars 2 has fewer options than any other games on this list, but there’s an impressive amount of variety packed into those five choices.

Aside from the standard humans, there’s also the Norn, who appear mostly human but are given a more creative flair with their shapeshifting abilities, and then it just gets more interesting from there.

Perhaps most striking are the Charr, who are mostly feline in appearance but also have demonic traits, with massive fangs and brutal horns. There are also the exotic plant people known as the Sylvari, and finally the gremlin-like Asura.

GW2 is also another game that deserves credit for offering relatively robust character customization even for its most non-human races.

World of Warcraft

A Tauren death knight in World of Warcraft

As the inspiration for this post, you had to know World of Warcraft would appear somewhere on the list. WoW has always had one of the most impressive racial line-ups in the MMO space, and it’s only gotten more diverse with time.

Aside from a strong stable of traditional options — humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and so forth — WoW also launched with the bovine Tauren and a race of undead called the Forsaken. Later these were joined by the alien Draenei, the anthropomorphic pandas called the Pandaren, and the Werewolf-like Worgen, among others.

Even some of Warcraft’s more traditional options feel fresh through unusual portrayals. Far from being mindless beasts, WoW’s Orcs are noble souls with a rich and intricate culture. The Elves, too, are unusual: the Night Elves possess a feral edge, while the Blood Elves are desperate renegades ostracized by the world at large.

Now the addition of allied races brings even more variety to WoW’s character creation screen. Some are admittedly only slight variations of existing races — the Highmountain are barely distinguishable from standard Tauren save for having different horns — but others, such as the Nightborne Elves and the upcoming Zandalari Trolls, feel like proper new races in their own right.

The EverQuests

Race selection in EverQuest II

Sharing both a setting and a penchant for wild racial choices, it makes sense to discuss both EverQuest and EverQuest II as a single unit.

The original EverQuest boasts an impressive selection of races, covering all the standard fantasy archetypes as well as embracing stranger choices including the catlike Vah Shir, lizard people called Iksar, human variants including the Erudite and Drakkin, and even a race of anthropomorphic frogs.

Even more impressively, its sequel offers even greater variety: the dragon-blooded Aerakyn, good and evil faerie races, rodent people called Ratonga, two different lizard races, playable vampires, and more. If you can’t find a race you like in EQ2, there’s simply no pleasing you.

The racial variety of the EverQuest games is vast, bordering on the baffling. Not every race will appeal to everyone — for my part I can’t imagine the appeal in playing as a frog paladin — but there are so many options you’re bound to find at least a few you like, and it’s that wealth of options that earns the EverQuests top honors on our list of MMOs with the best race options.


We Have Enough MMOs

2017 was another year without a lot of big name releases in the MMO space. We’re definitely going through a bit of a drought, especially when compared to the post-WoW boom, and that has a lot of people in the MMORPG community worried. The more hyperbolic voices among us rush to once again declare the genre dead, while more moderate figures simply hum and haw and hope for more new releases in future.

The Wrothgar zone in Elder Scrolls Online

But to that I say, “Don’t worry; be happy.” I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. I think everything is just fine. MMO players don’t need a constant stream of new titles; we just need a solid selection of games that continue to grow and prosper. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Simply put, we have enough MMOs.

What We Expect

Of course, it’s easy enough to see where this desire for more and more new games comes from. A steady stream of new releases is the bedrock of pretty much any entertainment industry. We’re used to things working that way.

Imagine if Hollywood put out only one or two movies over a period of several years. It would be disastrous. Movie theaters everywhere would go out of business. The entire film industry would collapse.

Closer to home, single-player game developers also need to keep putting out new titles if they want to survive. Even with an ever-increasing reliance on DLC, micro-transactions, and “long tail” monetization, the fact remains most people finish a single-player game (and stop paying for it) within a few weeks at most. Players and developers alike need new games to be released regularly, or the whole system collapses.

But MMOs are special, you see. MMOs aren’t something you pick up and put down in the space of hours, or days, or even weeks. MMOs are about investing months, even years of your time. Even for games that do charge for entry, subscription fees and cash shop purchases will inevitably dwarf box sales, and from the player’s perspective, long-term investment is much of the appeal. We want to be able to set down roots in a game and settle in for the long haul.

So while it’s easy to fall into the belief that a lack of new releases is a red flag, for MMOs, it really isn’t. The genre can survive for extended periods with little or no new games to speak of.

A town in the action combat MMORPG Kritika Online

If after ten or fifteen years we still haven’t seen any big-name MMO releases, then I’d get worried. Until then, I’m not concerned.

What We Want

Of course, even if you’re not worried about the health of the genre, it’s still understandable to pine for some new games to sink your teeth into. The excitement of something new and shiny cannot be denied.

Often times the hype leading up to a game’s release is at least as exciting as the actual game. Anticipation is fun. We all like to have something to look forward to.

There’s a rush to the first few days of an MMO’s life that can’t really be replicated by anything else, too. Everything is still fresh and new, not just to you but to everyone, and there’s a festival air to it all. Everything is busy. Everyone is having fun. Chat is hopping, and zones are buzzing. It’s the entire MMO experience turned up to eleven.

For those of us who comment on the genre for a hobby or for a living, new releases definitely make our lives easier, too. It’s unquestionably easier for me to review a new game than it is to find some new insight on the games that have already been out for years.

So yes, it’s understandable to want something new to play. But that still doesn’t mean a dearth of new titles is cause for concern. There are other, better ways to measure the health of the genre.

What We Need

 

A revenant character in Guild Wars 2's Path of Fire expansion

So we’re used to the idea that new releases are how entertainment industries stay afloat, and we have lots of good reasons to find new games exciting, but as I’ve said, MMOs are special, and that’s not what this genre is really about.

MMOs are not, by and large, a one and done experience. They’re not something you finish quickly… or at all. It’s not as though you’re going to play one for a few days and then move on. Not if the developers are doing their job, anyway.

No, MMORPGs are about settling down. They’re about finding a home. They’re games that you build relationships with over years.

We don’t need a constant chain of new games to play. We need games that we can stick with for the long haul, that continue to thrive years after launch.

The health of the MMORPG genre is therefore best measured not by the number of new releases, but by the prosperity and popularity of the games that are already live.

By that measure, I judge the state of the MMO genre to be strong.

We have a strong stable of big name MMOs that are getting regular infusions of quality content, like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, and Final Fantasy XIV. We have smaller and older games that continue to chug along, like Lord of the Rings Online and the EverQuests.

We have sci-fi MMOs, like EVE Online and Star Trek Online. We have shooter MMOs, like Destiny and Warframe. We have story MMOs and PvP MMOs and raiding MMOs. We have action combat MMOs and tab target MMOs, photo-realistic MMOs and anime MMOs, subscription MMOs and free to play MMOs.

A warlock character in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We live in a world where the only way I’ll find the time to play all the MMOs I want to as much as I want to is if scientists devise a way to function without sleep (and even then it would be a challenge). We have all that we need, and while you can probably point to some games that are struggling, there are at least as many that are thriving.

In the face of that, there just isn’t a pressing need to throw a lot of new games into the mix. In fact, I can even think of some downsides to the idea.

The pool of potential MMO players is, I believe, relatively static. A particularly exciting new game might attract some new players, but I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to convert a non-MMO player into the genre. I don’t think that a new MMORPG is just going to conjure itself an entirely new playerbase.

That means that any new games are going to cannibalize the players from existing games, at least to some extent. These days, most of us play multiple MMOs, but there is an upper limit to how many games each person has time for. At some point you do run the risk of the players being spread too thin between too many games, and the more people hop around, the less opportunity there is for true online communities to form.

Now, I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to say that more new MMOs would be a bad thing… but it’s not an unequivocally good thing, either.

In the years following the break-out success of World of Warcraft, we saw a steady stream of new MMOs coming out all the time, and some may see that as “the good old days,” but in practice all we got was an endless stream of barely distinguishable games that struggled to find a voice and an audience.

MMOs are not the new hotness anymore, and they’re no longer a genre that every other developer is trying to create a “me too” entry for. But that’s not a sign that the genre is dying; it’s a sign that it’s maturing, and that can only be a good thing.

A cutscene in the free to play MMORPG Blade and Soul

MMOs thrive on stability. That’s what we should seek above all else, and that’s what we have.

* * *

So I understand why some people are bothered by the relative lack of new MMOs being released these days. It’s not what we’re used to, and it gives us a lack of sexy newness to drool over.

But it doesn’t mean that MMOs are in trouble, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re dying. The genre has settled into a quiet equilibrium, and it’s chugging along just fine.

The gaming community loves to focus on the negative, but when you really think about it, now is a great time to be an MMORPG player. Maybe the best time. There are games for (nearly) every taste. Most of the big names are stable and thriving. We’ve got quality and quantity. We’ve got everything we need.

We have enough MMOs.


Christmas Without “Christmas” in MMORPGs

christmas in mmorpg lotro

Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?

Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
MMOEvent
ArcheAgeWinter Maiden Festival
AionSolorius Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)Frostfell
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)New Life
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)Starlight Celebration
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)Wintersday
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)Yuletide Festival
NeverwinterWinter Festival of Simril
RiftFae Yule
Star Trek Online (STO)Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)Life Day event
WildstarProtostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)Feast of Winter Veil

Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.

The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.

Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.

Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:

How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?

Christmas elements in MMOs

The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.

My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?

A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.

Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs

1. Throwing snowballs

2. Festive warm winter clothing

3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)

4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys

5. Elk mounts

(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)

The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.

1) Sci-fi MMOs

MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.

Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.

2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs

Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.

These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.

More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

3) High Fantasy MMOs

Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.

High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.

Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.

Conclusion

Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.


Emergent Storytelling Reigns Supreme

This is a collaborative post debating merits of emergent storytelling vs. static storytelling between yours truly and Roger from Contains Moderate Peril. After reading this, make sure to check out his side of the debate!

When it comes to MMOs, emergent storytelling is king.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good static story. The choice driven narrative in The Witcher series is as compelling as the linear experience of The Last of Us. For a single player game, it’s still the way to go. Emergent storytelling is improving for single player games like future XCOM-like releases, but they still pale compared to a hand-crafted story. The reason for this is single player games lack the human component. We’re still not close to AI that can mimic humans. But if there’s one thing that existing MMOs don’t lack it’s people. It makes the genre what it is.

Think about the most memorable stories in MMORPG history. Lord British’s assassination in Ultima Online. Felling the Sleeper in EverQuest. World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood plague. Eve Online’s heist (and basically everything else in that game). For MMO-lites, Rust has long been a source of entertaining stories. These events are so special that they transcend the worlds from which they originate. The common denominator between them is players using (perhaps abusing) the game system in unforeseen ways.  You literally can’t make this stuff up. That’s the potential of emergent storytelling.

emergent story eve heist

It’s true that to fully experience emergent stories, you need to be there when the event occurs. For the regular person, that’s not feasible. Gamers also work or go to school and can’t be available for something cool that’s happening in a video game. Fear of missing out affects a lot of people, given how many choices we have for entertainment. Playing a game where that’s a constant threat can be stressful. The flip side is that every login, it’s possible you will experience something memorable and unique. Maybe you’ll even be the one to initiate it. There’s no end to the storytelling in an open-ended system. Contrast that with a static story that will eventually end, and I think it makes the risk of “missing out” completely worth it.

Most of the events also tend to revolve around loss of some kind. Eve Online makes news based on espionage or massive wars, leading to the loss of property for players. Even the family friendly World of Warcraft’s most newsworthy happenings revolved around a nasty plague and disrupting a funeral. These are the things that make headlines – but I think that’s because MMORPGs have largely relied on PvP for emergent gameplay thus far. Non-MMO multiplayer games, like Minecraft, have demonstrated that players can impress us with cooperation as much as with conflict. Unfortunately, MMORPGs in that realm (like Landmark) haven’t made it very far. And in terms of PvE gameplay, public quests in games like Guild Wars 2 and Rift have been too predictable.

Ultimately, there is a lot to be gained by emergent gameplay. The point of the above is to show that thus far developers haven’t gone far enough with it. World of Warcraft blew everything up with its focus on solo play and quests. MMORPGs are expensive to produce so that’s been the blueprint for a decade. Thanks to the beauty of crowdfunding though, developers can now take risks to differentiate. MMORPGs like Star Citizen, Crowfall, and Chronicles of Elyria will (hopefully) deliver some exciting emergent options.

star citizen emergent gameplay

The core element is focusing on freedom of choice. I realize that’s easier said than done. The balancing element that also narrows the scope is consequence. Everything is possible, but everything has a price. It’s from this choice and consequence that people create these memorable narratives. Whether MMORPG developers like it or not, people play pivotal roles in storytelling both by their absence and their presence.

1) Absence – AI is predictable. Predictability does not lead to good stories. Good static stories circumvent this through scripted events to weave their tale. The problem is that these events work in isolation. When players are running around the world, that changes the experience in unseen ways. The absence of real players is usually critical for the storyteller to deliver their goods as intended. But MMORPGs are not solo affairs. Why focus on stories best experienced alone when the medium itself is built around multiplayer?

2) Presence – Humans are anything but predictable, especially when relatively minor consequences and internet anonymity gets thrown into the mix. MMORPGs should use this to their advantage. I’d argue that playing Eve Online is boring at best, but experiencing Eve Online’s multiple PvP systems is thrilling. Give players the tools, and they’ll create history. Again, just look at the massive success that is Minecraft and all of its copycats. Whether it’s building and destroying or cooperating and conflicting, it’s the people that make the MMO genre what it is.

Even language itself changes in unintended ways thanks to the players. MMO first timers might be overwhelmed by all of the genre’s jargon. It can feel practically like a foreign language. What’s cool is how this language naturally evolves to create terms or abbreviations that didn’t exist prior. Language may not be flashy, but altering the way we communicate fascinates me. And we have MMO players to thank for that.

I’ll close saying that games like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: The Old Republic offer good stories, but I’ve never seen them talked up besides from those who have experienced them. By contrast, I do see single player stories talked up. That’s all because it’s a strength of that focused medium. I say leave static storytelling to those single player games and push MMOs to invest in systems that allow players to tell their own stories and build their own legends. MMOs were built for emergent storytelling.

Like any good debate though, there’s always another side to the story. Check out Roger’s discussion in favor of static storytelling at Contains Moderate Peril.